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Uncovering 1860s graffiti; in Culpeper, an expert turns the clock back to Civil War
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
As a general rule, hospitals and dirt don’t get along.
In the Culpeper Civil War hospital that has become known as the Graffiti House, however, dirt has literally saved history.
At some point, probably years after the war ended, the owner of this old house decided to cover up the graffiti that soldiers from both armies had written—mostly using charcoal—on the walls of the makeshift hospital.
By then a layer of dirt and soot had built up on the white plaster walls, and that thin membrane was just enough to preserve hundreds of historical scribblings.
“When the wall was whitewashed over, this thin layer of dirt protected it,” says historical conservationist Chris Mills.
Mills, who operates Christopher Mills Conservation Services in New York City, is in the process of cleaning an upstairs bedroom wall at the Graffiti House in Brandy Station.
This room, called the J.E.B. Stuart Room because of a wall signature believed to have been written there by the Confederate general, is the last to release its secrets in the house that was constructed about three years before the Civil War began.
“When we cleave off the whitewash, the layer of dirt allows us to separate the lime wash from the plaster with no damage to the writing,” says Mills.
Of great help too is the fact that the soldiers used mostly charcoal from the several fireplaces in the home to leave their messages on the walls (there are also some pencil inscriptions and drawings).
“Charcoal is inert,” says Mills. “The carbon doesn’t deteriorate with time.”
The work in this room is a bit trickier than in the rest of the house, however, because the owners added some sort of blue tint to the whitewash.
“It is an amazing circumstance that it is still all here,” says Mills.
Not only is Mills, in surgeon-like manner, painstakingly removing the whitewash, the conservationist is also stabilizing the plaster, which in some places is cracked and pulling away from the wooden laths that have held it in place for more than 150 years.
In some cases, previous owners have used strips of porous tape, covered with some type of spackling, to keep the cracks from widening. Removing these foreign substances makes Mills’ job even tougher and results in some minor but unavoidable damage to the graffiti underneath.
Once the tape is removed, Mills pins the cracked plaster to the laths with nail-like plastic fasteners. When the pins are removed, the holes they made are used to inject an alcohol solution into the plaster.
“Then I inject a synthetic resin that adheres the wood lath to the plaster,” Mills says, adding that he makes the substance himself.
As it dries, the alcohol solution helps pull the heavier synthetic resin into the hole, says Mills.
At some later time the wall may be covered with a protective layer of conservation-grade varnish. Located about 70 feet from a main railroad line, the old walls will need all the protection they can get from the constant vibrations.
Mills, who began this painstakingly slow operation last Thursday, sometimes must moisten the whitewash before he can get it off, especially around taped cracks.
He is even affected by the strokes of the original plasterer’s brush, working with the grain and not against it. But, using whatever means is necessary, his job is to protect the fragile writings on these historic walls.
“This is challenging because of the very nature of graffiti, which was never meant to remain,” says Mills.
The Graffiti House at Brandy Station is not unique because soldiers, out of boredom and in an effort to leave their mark, often scribbled on hospital walls. Mills has plied his trade on several of these houses, including one in Woodstock in Shenandoah County.
Mills not only enjoys his work but is often fascinated by what he uncovers.
“I like the personal things, like the note in the other room that it snowed on a particular day,” he says.
On this day Mills uncovered the name of one soldier named Miller and another named D. Specht of Company 9, Sixth Regiment.
There are also references on the wall to the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, and although the latter occurred before the former, the Kelly’s Ford notation is inscribed over the Gettysburg notation.
“Aw, these [local Civil War buffs] will know by tomorrow who these people are,” Mills says. The Pittsburgh native is amazed that Southerners are so knowledgeable about the conflict.
“Up North we don’t know anything about the war,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “But then our houses weren’t burned and our crops destroyed.”
Part of the wall in this room was removed years ago by people who toured the house long before preservationists became involved. Three chunks of plaster were removed by visitors who decided to help preserve the graffiti because they knew the house was slated for demolition.
According to volunteer Barry Atchison, all three slabs of plaster have been returned but had to be paid for by the Brandy Station Foundation.
Mills’ work at Brandy Station will last about 10 days, and then he will move on to some other bit of history that needs saving.
Meanwhile, the graffiti he uncovers here will be studied and interpreted so that future generations might benefit from it.
And just maybe there will be a family named Miller or Specht who will find out that their ancestors once convalesced in a house at Brandy Station and scribbled a footnote to history on its walls.
After all, history is people.